S is for Soaps

24 03 2013

first things first tvA friend and former colleague, Nick Bedford, is excited about the possibilities that soap operas offer for second language learning. He himself has been watching soaps in Russian for a number of years now, clocking up literally hundreds of hours of exposure. He comments:

The thing is you get to know the characters and their voices and you can predict their answers and even pet phrases. Also there’s lots of “real-life” dialogues which are delivered in a kind of wooden way that doesn’t render it ridiculous but at the same time isn’t like trying, say, to understand ring-side banter in a Scorcese movie. There’s something satisfying about the whole activity, like you feel you’re being equipped or kitted out with useful and natural language. I know my spoken Russian is the better for it.

There is some evidence to support Nick’s enthusiasm. In a recent study of six highly proficient English learners in China (Wang 2012: 341) the researcher found that the subjects ‘attributed their progress in English language learning to an intensive watching of [English television drama] and a careful study of its dialogue.’

One of the informants reported that ‘it’s full of real dialogues, very conversational. It’s about ordinary people and their everyday life. It’s the best channel to see people living with the English language. […] It’s the most dynamic learning resource’.

The authenticity of TV drama has been validated by researchers using the tools of discourse analysis. One study, for example, compared conversational closings in textbooks with those in a New Zealand soap opera and found the latter more consistent with descriptions in the literature on conversation analysis (Grant & Starks, 2001). More recently, Al-Surmi (2012) has analysed the lexical and grammatical features of sit-coms and soap operas (the latter consisting of ten seasons of Friends), and compared the results to a corpus of natural, unscripted American conversation. Both TV genres replicated many of the characteristics of naturally-occurring talk, although sit-coms come closer than do soap operas, it seems.

kernel tvVocabulary coverage in TV programs has also been the target of some recent studies. Webb and Rodgers (2009) for example, analyzed the lexical range in a corpus of 88 television programs of a variety of genres , including soaps, and concluded that, ‘if learners knew the most frequent 3,000 word families and they watched at least an hour of television a day, there is the potential for significant incidental vocabulary learning’. Children’s programs, sit-coms and dramas were found to make fewer vocabulary demands than news or science programs, unsurprisingly.

Nick Bedford can attest to these benefits: ‘I’ve noticed that students who follow soaps – and there are a lot of them, especially people in their twenties here in Spain – whose English is way better, in all respects, than those who don’t.’

Because of this, he has started posting small 8 minute doses of the BBC Extra English soap for his students to download onto their mobile phones. ‘The results are that students – even at lower levels – are talking to me ALL the time in English outside class and they even have a kind of new-found bravado!’

The Chinese study identified a number of strategies that the six informants had in common, and which might constitute worthwhile advice to learners wishing to exploit ‘the joys of soap’:

1. Select material carefully – don’t go too far outside your comfort zone

2. Repeated viewings – just once is not enough

3. Use subtitles – first in your L1, and then in the L2

4. Take notes, e.g. vocabulary, phrases

5. Imitation – assume the ‘voice’ of your favorite character, for example

6. Practice – recycle learned vocabulary and expressions in real-life conversations, if possible

7. Share experiences, tips, transcriptions, etc with peers as part of an online study group

donn byrne tvThe beauty of soap operas, of course, is that they have in-built motivational potential: once learners are hooked they are likely to stay hooked. In this sense, they are a far remove from traditional classroom materials, which is one reason that Wang (2012: 342) adduces for their appeal:

It seems that classroom teaching materials are primarily textbook-oriented and test-driven, with the focus on form rather than meaning and on accuracy rather than communication. Such standard teaching materials lack a realistic and meaningful context and fail to deal with contemporary issues that are relevant to learners’ lives, and therefore do not help extend English learning beyond classrooms.

Nick makes a similar point:

One thing I like about the issue is how people are pro-actively sifting and appropriating the language they feel they need from soaps. There’s something picaresque about it – as if students had got tired of hanging around for teachers and course book writers and had burrowed a tunnel into the vault.


Al-Surmi, M. (2012) ‘Authenticity and TV shows: A multidimensional analysis perspective, TESOL Quarterly, 46/4.

Grant, L., & Starks, D. (2001) ‘Screening appropriate teaching materials: Closings from textbooks and television soap operas’, IRAL, 39/1.

Webb, S. & Rodgers, M.P.H. (2009) ‘Vocabulary Demands of Television Programs’, Language Learning, 59/2.

Wang, D. (2012) ‘Self-directed English language learning through watching English television drama in China’, Changing English, 19/3.

Illustrations from Alexander, L.G. (1967) First Things First, Longman; O’Neill, R., Kingsbury, R., & Yeadon, T. (1971) Kernel Lessons Intermediate, Longman; and Byrne, D. (1967) Progressive Picture Compositions, Longman.